About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

"Arrow of God" by Chinua Achebe

The third novel in Achebe's African trilogy but, like the other two (Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease), it stands on its own.

It starts with Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of tribal god Ulu, who is watching for the new moon. “The moon he saw that day was as thin as an orphan fed grudgingly by a cruel foster-mother.” This part of his priestly job will become important at the end of the book. It is to do with the announcement of the new year, a task which gives him great power although in many ways "he was merely a watchman". "It was a fight of the gods. He was no more than an arrow in the bow of his god."

But for the most part the narrative meanders around the priest and his family. He has four sons: Edogo who wants to be a wood carver; Obika, a strong man and in some ways his father's favourite but headstrong and a lover of palm wine; Oduche whom has been sent by his father to the mission school so that he can learn the ways of the white man; and little Nwafo, still a boy, but perhaps the one most likely to inherit the priesthood. If there is a plot it revolves around the colonial officer's and their ignorant attempts to bring civilisation by building roads (with forced unpaid labourers who can be whipped) and appointing village leaders to become local kings. Ezeulu is one of those whom they want to appoint.

What makes this book great, and I would rate it higher than either of the other two, is that it understands the people. Each character is portrayed with their strengths and their weaknesses. It is a fond portrait of family life. And when bad things happen, blame is difficult to ascribe. Is it due to the well-meaning but ignorant intervention of the colonial conquerors or is it due to the superstitions and pig-headed clinging to tradition of the villagers?

There are some fabulous descriptions, such as a promise that “went no deeper than the lips.” A man with a hangover thinks “the walking was already doing him some good; the feeling was returning that the head belong to him.” A stubborn man “could never see something and take his eyes away from it.” Caught in a rainstorm two men get soaked: “the cloth clinging as if terrified to their bodies”. These are observations of humanity that transcend time and culture and place.

But perhaps the best thing about the book is all the wonderful proverbs within it:

  • What kind of power was it if it would never be used?
  • To you whatever I say in this house is no more effective than the fart a dog breaks to put out a fire
  • Wisdom is like a goat-skin bag; every man carries his own.
  • In a great man's household there must be people who follow all kind of strange ways. There must be good people and bad people, honest workers and thieves, peace-makers and destroyers ... In such a place, whatever music you beat on your drum there is somebody who can dance to it.” This is repeated . The first time Ezeule says it; the second time it is said to him: “In all great compounds there must be people of all mind - some good, some bad, some fearless and some cowardly; those who bring in wealth and those who scatter it, those who give good advice and those who only speak the words of palm wine. That is why we say that whatever tune you play in the compound of a great man there is always someone to dance to it.” A number of the proverbs are repeated, sometimes very similar but often changed slightly to reflect the character or the context.
  • The white man is like hot soup and we must take him slowly-slowly from the edges of the bowl.” 
  • A man may refuse to do what is asked of him but may not refuse to be asked.
  • The death that will kill a man begins as an appetite.
  • If a man sought for a companion who acted entirely like himself he would live in solitude.
  • A woman who began cooking before another must have more broken utensils.
  • A man who asks questions does not lose his way.” 

Other great lines
  • He was as good as any young man, or better because young men were no longer what they used to be.
  • My things always turn out differently from other people's. If I drink water it sticks between my teeth.” 
A great book by a writer who has really come into his power.

June 2018; 222 pages

Monday, 18 June 2018

"The Aeneid" by Virgil

This is the classic Roman poem about how Aeneas flees the sack of Troy with his dad and his son and quite a lot of other Trojans, how they take refuge in Dido's Carthage before going to Italy where his descendants will found Rome. It was written sometime after 27 BC and unfinished when Virgil died in 19 BC. It is in 12 books, each of about 900 lines of epic poetry. My version was a prose translation by David West published by Penguin Classics.

The Aeneid starts with the three Latin words arma virumque cano (Of arms and of the man I sing) and thus references Homer whose Iliad is about warfare and whose Odyssey is about the man Odysseus.

Book One tells the story of how Aeneas is shipwrecked on the Carthaginian (North African) shore and how he and his men are given refuge by Queen Dido. In Book Two Aeneas tells the story of the sack of Troy. He continues to tell about the first wanderings of the Trojan refugees in Book Three. In Book Four Dido tells her sister that she loves Aeneas. The pair of them get it together in a cave and start to go around as a couple but then Aeneas, to realise his destiny, sneaks away without telling Dido and she, heartbroken, kills herself. Book Five is concerned with a sporting event hosted by Aeneas in Sicily. In Book Six Aeneas travels down into the Underworld and witnesses a procession of the famous Romans of the future.

The second half of the Aeneid(Books Seven to Twelve) is concerned with Aeneas arriving in Italy and fighting a war with the Italians led by King Latinus. Having pinched the promised with of Turnus, Aeneas travels to a primitive Romen to ally himself with the Etruscan King Evander. Meanwhile the Trojan camp is sacked by Turnus and his Rutulians. The war swings to and fro (Virgil revelling in poetry as gory as Homer's describing the many ways a warrior can kill and be killed) until eventually Aeneas kills Turnus in person and a truce is arranged.

There is a lot of bloodshed in the latter part of the book, which Virgil seems to relish, describing it with Homeric fervour. One imagines he had watched men fight and die. For example:
He vomited rivers of blood and champed the gory earth with his teeth, twisting himself round his wound as he died.” (Book 11)

Selected quotes

Book 1
The glow of youth shone all about him. It was as though skilled hands had added embellishments to ivory or applied gilding to silver or Parian marble.
Through my own suffering, I am learning to help those who suffer.” (1.630)

Book 2
I am afraid of Greeks, even when they bear gifts.” (2.49)
I was paralysed. My hair stood on end. My voice stuck in my throat.

Book 3

The Harpies “are birds with the faces of girls, with filth oozing from their bellies, with hooked claws for hands and faces pale with a hunger that is never satisfied.

Book 6

There are two gates of sleep: one is called the Gate of Horn and it is an easy exit for true shades; the other is made all in gleaming white ivory, but through it the powers of the underworld send false dreams up towards the heavens.” Aeneas exits through the Gate of Ivory!

Book 8

A form of torture whereby living men were roped to dead bodies, typing them hand to hand and face to face to die a lingering death oozing with putrefying flesh in this cruel embrace.

Book 9

Is it the gods who put this ardour into our minds, or does every man’s irresistible desire become his god?
You are young and your claim on life is greater than mine.

Book 10

As each man has set up his loom, so he will endure the labour and the fortune of it.
Fortune favours the bold

Book 11

The dead warrior “lay like a flower cut by the thumbnail of a young girl, a soft violet or drooping lily, still with its sheen and its shape, though Mother Earth no longer feeds it and gives it strength.
He was like a stallion that has broken his tether and burst from his stall; free at last he gains the open plain and runs to the fields where the herds of mares are pastured or gallops off to bathe in the river which he used to know so well, tossing high his head and whinnying with delight while the man streams over his head and flanks.”
As the sacred falcon flies from his crag to pursue a dove high in the clouds, catches it, holds it and rips its entrails with hooked claws while blood and torn feathers float down from the sky.

Book 12

Then Jupiter himself lifted up a pair of scales with the tongue centred and put the lives of the two men in them to decide who would be condemned in the ordeal of battle, and with whose weight death would descend.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

"Children of the Mist" by Hywela Lyn

Having colonised an icy, mountainous planet and used names from Norse myth to map it, earthlings have developed telepathy and telekinesis but renounced rocket science and modern medicine. So when a mysterious sickness starts to kill people they have to gather together to send a telepathic message into space to summon their old friend Jess who has a space ship to come and help them. But when she arrives she is accompanied by her husband Dahll who was the previous love interest of Tamarinth (who, however, is now falling for the extraordinarily handsome Vidarh who himself is developing the ability to teleport). Then slavers arrive on the planet and kidnap Tamarinth and others. Can Jess and Vidarh and Dahll, together with Tamarinth's siblings and her pet icecat find and free Tamarinth at the same time as discovering a cure for the illness?

A carefully plotted and fast paced science fiction romance although sometimes the potential for conflict between the characters was not fully developed. Goodies are goodies and baddies are baddies. The only two goodies who appear to do something bad are quickly killed off and what they actually did is never fully explored. The love triangles could have been exploited more fully as could have the tension between Vidarh's loyalty to the mission and his desire to return home to save his family. And the deus ex machina at the end was just a little audacious. Nevertheless, a perfectly readable example of the genre.

June 2018; 218 pages

Thursday, 14 June 2018

"A Horse Walks into a Bar" by David Grossman

A retired judge, grieving the loss of his wife, watches a stand-up comic, once a childhood friend, perform a routine in a cabaret bar in Israel. As the evening progresses the stand-up turns the act into a confessional. One by one the audience leave as the jokes run dry and the comic becomes serious.

This book, which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2017, has a single scene (the cabaret bar); it starts when the comic enters on stage and it ends when he finishes his routine. It is narrated by the judge who observes the whole thing unfold. 

To what extent does the judge's bereavement foreshadow the climax of the story? “I saw for real that he wasn't worth anything without her, and that all his power in life came from her being with him. He turned into half a human in that one instant.” (p 193)

What's it all about? Is it actually about writing? “I quickly discovered that exaggerations were warmly welcomed: no pin pricks would deflate my hot-air balloons, and it turned out that I could and should tell each story over and over again with embellishment and plot twists, some that were real and others that could have been.” (p 39) Is Grossman reflecting on the art of the storyteller?

Why the three characters? The protagonist is the stand-up comedian. The narrator is the retired Judge. Having a narrator is important, I think, because it allows Grossman to observe the reactions to the comedian and because it allows us not to know where the comedian is going. Their childhood friendship, during which the Judge betrayed the Comic, adds an important note of tension because, as the Comic tells his long story, we are unsure whether he will reveal what the Judge did. The third character, the small Medium who regularly defends the Comic, saying what a nice boy he used to be, is more difficult to understand in terms of her role within the story.

How is the plot structured? It seems a rambling account in which the Comic starts by telling jokes before embarking on the long confessional story of his childhood. But is there a skeleton? In film writing scriptwriters are exhorted to use a three act structure (I think of this as a four act structure because the middle act of the three is twice as long as the others and often divided into two parts). To ascertain whether this book was analysable in terms of a four act structure I looked at what happened around pages 50, 100, and 150:

  • Around page fifty the small Medium contributes, revealing that she knew the Comic when he was young telling the audience that he was a nice boy who walked on his hands. 
  • Around page 100 the Comic starts telling the audience about his experience in an army training camp and the Judge believes that this is where he will be outed as a betrayer.
  • Around page 150 the driver Jokerman has a realisation and starts to treat his passenger as a person.

I'm not sure if these are the major turning points. I suspect that the most important moment is about page 103 when we start to realise what the Comic's long story might be about.

Great moments:
  • ‘But I have seen you before’, I reminded him. ‘It's been years’, he said immediately. ‘I'm not me, you're not you’.” (p 63)
  • You were such medicine for me, such medicine for the dry bachelorhood that had closed in on me ... and for all the antibodies to life that had built up in my blood through all the years without you” (p 69)
  • Being. ... what an amazing, subversive idea.” (p 72)
  • A little boy trapped between the table and the wall as his father lashes him with a belt.” (p 79)
  • I’ve long ago forgotten if it's my dignity I've lost or my shame.” (p 133)
  • Be nice ... Remember that every person only lives for a short time, and you have to make that time pleasant.” (p 138)

A tour de force. June 2018; 198 pages

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

"Fear and trembling" by Soren Kierkegaard

This was originally written under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio. I found it very difficult to read short book. It is a work of theology more than off philosophy. It seems to take a Christian perspective for granted. It centres around the story of Abraham taking Isaac into the desert to sacrifice him. This story is told in Genesis 22: 1 - 18. God tells Abraham to take Isaac his son into the desert and to build an altar and to kill the boy on the altar. Abraham follows God's instructions to the letter until, with Isaac bound on the altar and the knife raised, God sends an angel to tell Abraham to desist and kill a sheep instead. The point of the story is that Abraham was tested and passed the test. It is because of this that God loves the descendants of Abraham.

At first sight this is a terrible story. Abraham is prepared to kill his only son because God has told him too. As SK says: “Abraham enjoys honour and glory as the father of faith, whereas he ought to be prosecuted and convicted of murder.” (p 41) It is wrong on every level. “There was many a father who lost his child”: the God that spared Isaac is the same God who destroys the only sons of other men. How is this just? “Is it because Abraham had a prescriptive right to be a great man, so that what he did is great, and when another does the same it is sin?” How is it just that what would be regarded as appalling in a normal person can be excused in Abraham? Is it because, in the end, Abraham did not kill Isaac even though that outcome was not chosen by Abraham? “Before the result, either Abraham was every minute a murderer” (p 50)

There are four scenarios which could have happened:

  • Abraham could have listened to God’s suggestion and refused the call. Me? Kill my son? No way.
  • Abraham could have gone along with the idea and then had a last-minute change of heart and spared Isaac.
  • As per the Bible story; Abraham could have been prepared to kill his son had God not told him not to at the last moment.
  • Abraham could have ‘sacrificed’ Isaac.

In which of these does Abraham do good? I would have suggested Abraham emerges with credit in only scenarios one and two. Three is attempted murder and four is murder. SK points out that there are parallels to child sacrifice, for example when Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia to obtain a favourable wind for the Greek fleet sailing to Troy. Agamemnon at least had the excuse that he was doing a bad thing for the greater good. Even then, the myths wreak eventual retribution on Agamemnon, suggesting that the Greeks believed that what Agamemnon did was bad. The morality of the pagan Greeks seems here better than that of the monotheistic Hebrews.

In which of these scenarios does God appear good? Only in scenario three does God not demand the death of an innocent child. Butt even in three he puts both Abraham and Isaac through psychological torture in order to test how fanatical Abraham is prepared to be. This is certainly not a nice God. “He who in demanding a person's love thinks that this love should be proved ... is not only an egoist but stupid as well.” (p 56)

Abraham is applauded because he passed God’s test: he would have killed his son for his faith.The message here seems to be: be a zealot; blind faith is good. As  SK asserts: “Faith is the highest passion in a man.” (p 94) Before this is dismissed as just 'Old Testament' something similar is said by Jesus too. SK points out that in Luke 14:26 Jesus says: “If any man cometh unto me and hateth not his own father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea, and his whole life also, he cannot be my disciple.”  But I suspect that today we see the blind faith of fundamentalists as leading to cruelty and inhumane wickednesses. Rather, it is good to doubt.

But then, this is because I don't believe in an afterlife. Promises of glory or a better world after death have always been used to motivate men to do terrible things. And SK subscribes to the belief that  there must be something spiritual that survives death. “If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all then they only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all - what then would life be but despair?” (p 13) But this is a silly argument. Something doesn't simply exist because it makes life easier. As he himself says later: “Fools and young men prate about everything being possible for a man. That, however, is a great error. ... in the world of the finite there is much which is not possible.” (p 33) Of course that only applies (for SK) in the world of the finite and for him the spiritual/ethical world is that of the infinite. Nevertheless, until you are convinced that something about us is immortal you cannot argue that anything about the Abraham and Isaac story reflects well on either the fanatical murderer Abraham or the duplicitous tester God.

I just wonder how Isaac felt as he made the long trek back through the desert beside the father who had been about to kill him.

Doubt has to be better than zealotry.

Other interesting and insightful quotes from this book:

  • The thread is spun under tears, the cloth bleached with tears, the shirt sewn with tears ... everyone must sew it for himself.” (p 34)
  • People do not know what they ought to say but only that they must say something.” (p 42)
  • No one thinks that a man became great because he won the great prize in the lottery.” (p 48)
  • Know thyself? “Delving deep into oneself one would first of all discover the disposition to evil.” (p 77 fn)
  • From time out of mind people have been pleased to think that witches, hobgoblins, gnomes etc were deformed, and undeniably every man on seeing a deformed person has at once an inclination to associate this with the notion of moral depravity. What a monstrous injustice!” (p 81)
  • A genius must be “master of his madness ... since otherwise he would be actually a madman.” (p 82)

June 2018; 95 pages

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

"Some Do Not ..." by Ford Madox Ford

This is the first book of the Parade's End tetralogy. It is written by the author of The Good Soldier and it contains some of the same themes: the Catholic wife married to the Protestant husband, adultery, and the motivation of keeping up appearances.

Some Do Not ... was published in 1924, after Ulysses (1922) but before Mrs Dalloway (1925). As with these other novels, it foregrounds thought. Each chapter starts with a situation, and then rambles backwards and forwards. In this way the narrative technique resembles that of The Good Soldier (although it is less extreme, confining the rambling to within each chapter rather than allowing it to spread across the whole book as in TGS). In addition some of the chapters are told from within the head of one of the characters. Thus, Part One Chapter Six is a stream of consciousness in which Tietjens walks through the countryside following Valentine and thinks (and falls in love with her).

The protagonist if Christopher Tietjens, younger son of the owner of Groby, a stately home in Yorkshire, who is the ultimate in know-all geeks and the last of the stiff-upper-lipped old-style noblesse-oblige upper-class. The story opens in a railway carriage where CT and Vincent Macmaster (a Scott of very humble beginnings who has been supported through his education by CT's father and who is the soul of ambition) are discussing whether CT should forgive his wife who is asking to be taken back after running off to Europe with another man (leaving CT with a child whom he doubts is really his; in a brilliant pathetic fallacy we are told that CT is “interested in the domestic affairs of the cuckoo”). We progress through an attack on a golfing party by Suffragettes, a breakfast party with a clergyman suffering from some sort of religious Tourettes (at which VM falls in love with the clergyman's wife), to CT falling into unconsummated love with one of the Suffragette girls, Valentine Wannop (a wonderfully liberated woman who, to make ends meet after the death of her Professor father and to keep her brother at Eton works as a maid and later as a gym mistress). Part Two opens three years later during World War One. CT has been injured and is slowly recovering the use of his memory. Although everyone around him has been committing adulteries and he and VW are the only sexual innocents the rumours suggest he has made her pregnant; society (and particularly the guiltiest) is beginning to turn its back on him. CT is recalled to the front. Given that he may very well be killed, and given that he has already lost his reputation, should Christopher consummate his love for Valentine?

A wonderful novel exposing the double standards behind society. As the book points out, those who don't go to the front to fight resent those who do and therefore do their best to blacken their names. Those who are guilty hate those who are innocent.

There are some great moments in which the socio-historical situation is laid bare. It is difficult to say whether the comments reveal the attitudes of the author, or of the character, and to what extent the author is writing these things in order to criticise them.

  • I am offered the job—of course it’s an order really—of suppressing the Ulster Volunteers . . . I’d rather cut my throat than do it . . . ’ Sandbach said: ‘Of course you would, old chap. They’re our brothers.
  • And policemen to go round the links with Ministers to protect them from the wild women .
  • The wangle known as shell-shock was cynically laughed at and quite approved of. Quite decent and, as far as she knew, quite brave menfolk of her women would openly boast that, when they had had enough of it over there, they would wangle a little leave or get a little leave extended by simulating this purely nominal disease, and in the general carnival of lying, lechery, drink, and howling that this affair was, to pretend to a little shell-shock had seemed to her to be almost virtuous.
  • charity begins surely with the char!

There are many other brilliant lines:

  • As Tietjens saw the world, you didn’t ‘talk.’ Perhaps you didn’t even think about how you felt.
  • Disasters come to men through drink, bankruptcy, and women.
  • His life had necessarily been starved of women and, arrived at a stage when the female element might, even with due respect to caution, be considered as a legitimate feature of his life, he had to fear a rashness of choice due to that very starvation.
  • If you swat flies enough some of them stick to the wall.
  • What finally separated the classes was that the upper could lift its feet from the ground whilst common people couldn’t.
  • “dagger . . . sheath!”: This is a wonderful metaphor (full of sexual innuendo) in which the narrator compares his wife with the woman he loves:
  • Heroines are all very well; admirable, they may even be saints; but if they let themselves get careworn in face and go shabby . . . Well, they must wait for the gold that shall be amply stored for them in heaven.
  • No woman should wear clouded amber, for which the proper function was the provision of cigarette holders for bounders.
  • The devil of course is stupid and uses toys like fireworks and sulphur; it is probably only God who can, very properly, devise the long ailings of mental oppressions .
  • Actually, this mist was not silver, or was, perhaps, no longer silver: if you looked at it with the eye of the artist . . . With the exact eye! It was smirched with bars of purple; of red; or orange; delicate reflections: dark blue shadows from the upper sky where it formed drifts like snow . . . The exact eye: exact observation: it was a man’s work. The only work for a man. Why then were artists soft: effeminate: not men at all: whilst the army officer, who had the inexact mind of the schoolteacher, was a manly man? Quite a manly man: until he became an old woman!
  • But why was he born to be a sort of lonely buffalo: outside the herd?
  • when she entered the room every woman kept her husband on the leash.
  • He had come in like a stallion, red-eyed, and all his legs off the ground: he went down the stairs like a half-drowned rat, with dim eyes and really looking wet,
  • she was sure her butler would get to heaven, simply because the Recording Angel, being an angel—and, as such, delicately minded—wouldn’t have the face to put down, much less read out, the least venial of Morgan’s offences .
  • they hate the French for being frugal and strong in logic and well-educated and remorselessly practical.
  • Perhaps the complete study of one woman gave you a map of all the rest!
  • The poorer helots of great cities hearten their lives by dreaming of material beauties, elegance and suave wealth,
  • The staff officers who came to the Tietjens were not of the first vintages; still they had the labels and passed as such.
  • proficiency of the body calls for chastity, sobriety, cleanliness and the various qualities that group themselves under the heading of abnegation.”
The book explores social mobility. Tietjens, though an old Tory with the most privileged background, is utterly at home with all classes. Valentine was forced by her father's death to leave her privileged world and become a maid but this experience has not in the least coarsened her. Her bother, in contrast, who went to Eton at the expense of his skivvying sister, embraces communism and becomes a conscientious objector during the war, which involves working on a mine sweeper after a spell in prison, and is depicted as a drunk, coarsened by his rather privileged upbringing just as Valentine has been purified and refined by her descent into the working class.

Mrs Duchemin, the long-suffering wife of the manic preacher, who has an affair with Macmaster, and whose return for the protection and discretion of Tietjens is to shun him and blacken his name.She and Macmaster are from the poorest classes and successful social climbers; their Friday salons are a perfect example of evolving pecking orders.

Modernist writing at its best. June 2018

Monday, 11 June 2018

"Her" by Harriet Lane

Nina sees Emma on the streets. Nine doesn't recognise Emma. But Emma has a score to settle with Nina. So Emma starts to insinuate her way into Nina's life. Into her family. Into her children.

As the narration alternates between the two women, you realise that something is going to go very wrong for Nina.

This is a chilling psychological thriller distinguished by some wonderful writing. On the very first page the promise of the summer is polluted by what is deeply buried in a wonderful pathetic fallacy: “The golden air is viscous with pollen; but it's tainted, too, with the disquieting scent of the urban summer: the reek of exhausts and drains and sewers, the faraway stench of the ancient forgotten streams that seep through the rocks and silt deep beneath my feet.” (p 1)

Nina is a young mother who has sacrificed her career and the family's chance of financial security to care for her young children. There are some wonderful descriptions of how this feels:
  • Someone ... is practising Chopin in front of an open window, going over the same few bars, making the same mistakes.” (p 18)
  • For now I must sit here, trapped by my reflection and the reflection of the room behind me.” (p 41)
  • Lonely and yet never alone.” (p 78)

Even more disturbing are the vivid descriptions of the baby:
  • Here Nina is breast-feeding: “This is my job: to sit in an empty room holding this small unhappy thing close to me, allowing it to fasten onto my flesh, my milk pumping in, displacing the toxic silt which is waiting there in the plumbing.” (p 40)
  • This is what she thinks as she looks at the baby: "She's hot and damp and firm and squealing, an animated bag of dough smelling of farmyards. The urgency of her hunger makes me feel slightly sick. There's the usual wailing desperation as she tugs and strains, goldfish mouth flapping, fists flailing, her eyes screwed shut in fury.” (p 40)
  • Here the baby is tasting a banana: “Many emotions crowd her face in rapid succession: disgust, cautious optimism, greedy delight, and fury when it's all gone.” (p 103)
  • And after a flight, Nina sees herself as “A drained-looking middle-aged person, draped in children and exhaustion.” (p 169)

But there are other brilliant descriptions. Two teenage girls, nervously stroke their hair: “Self-grooming, a sort of tic.” (p 116)

Other great lines:
  • Above the trees in the clear promising sky a flock of birds: twisting and bobbing, rolling and weaving, cohesive as mercury.” (p 149)
  • The percussion of the main road starts to build: the distant wail of a siren, the sighs and expostulations of buses.” (p 149)
  • All this talk about ‘finding yourself’; often, other people show you yourself first.” (p 161)
  • This is the best time of day: new-minted, before the heat makes everything slovenly.” (p 194)
  • She approves of the baby Jesus ... he doesn't look like a bank-manager in a loincloth.” (p 197)

Breath-taking writing in the service of a story which got more and more tense as it built towards a nail-biting conclusion.

Wonderful. June 2018; 235 pages

Saturday, 2 June 2018

"Sudden Genius" by Andrew Robinson

This is a beautifully written book containing the potted biographies of ten characters upon whom Robinson bestows the title of  'Genius': Leonardo da Vinci, Wren, Mozart, Champollion, Darwin, Curie, Einstein, Woolf, Cartier-Bresson, and Ray. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book while disagreeing, on mainly methodological grounds, with almost all of the conclusions Robinson draws about genius.

I suppose I should declare two interests. First, Robinson was a friend of mine at school. Second, my doctoral thesis touches upon creativity and 'eureka' moments, though not upon genius as such.

There are two major problems. Firstly, I dispute that you can draw valid conclusions about the nature of something by looking at those individuals who are, by definition, unusual. It is like trying to understand mammals by considering marsupials. Robinson acknowledges this problem, stating that “the convincing method to determine whether there are causal links between personality characteristics and creative performance would be to begin with a group of young people before they show any eminence and study their personality and their creativity over the course of their lives.” (p 295) Nevertheless he persists in drawing conclusions from anomalies.

Secondly, he has a sample of ten. Furthermore, he has selected these ten with no obvious criteria. Given that he quotes Csikszentmihalyi who points out that van Gogh's contemporaries did not recognise his genius. but we do, hence "What we are saying is that we know what great art is so much better than Van Gogh contemporaries did - those bourgeois philistines.” (p 208, quoting Csikszentmihalyi) nevertheless he insists that “genius is the name we give to the quality of work that transcends fashion, fame, and reputation ... Somehow, genius abolishes both the time and the place of it origin.” (p 315) He is proud that his sample is balanced between the arts and the sciences. There is also a nod towards ethnic diversity ('only' 90% western European) and gender equality (20% female). But there must be questions about who he has picked. Why Einstein rather than Schrodinger or Bohr or Dirac? Why Curie rather than Rutherford; Ray instead of Welles; Woolf instead of Joyce? With such a small sample size the selection is crucial. I am sure that I could prove almost any thesis if I only needed the evidence of ten individuals I self selected: all geniuses are left-handed; all geniuses are gay; all geniuses believe in God. As it is, even with his sample, Robinson struggles. He makes pronouncements such as “the huge growth in size and competitiveness of higher education in the second half of the twentieth century and after that did not increase the number of exceptionally creative scientists.” (p 276) which he evidences with an anecdote of a genius outside his sample. Seeking to prove that genius flowers after ten years of hard work on a problem he resorts to selecting manipulating start and end dates. He dates Einstein's ten years, for example, not from when he started studying Physics but from when he started studying it "seriously". Even then he has to explain away exceptions. Marie Curie was a bit too quick because she was married to Pierre, for example. Other pronouncements have even less evidence: he claims a characteristic of genius is that personality is protean: it is a "near-certainty that creative people do not actually have the kind of enduring personality.” (p 295) As to the percentage of genius which is perspiration: “There can be no doubting that geniuses work habitually and continually ... Bach on average composed 20 pages of finished music per day ... Picasso created more than 20,000 works; PoincarĂ© published 500 papers and 30 books; Einstein produced 240 publications; Freud had 330.” (p 317) This looks impressive but it is again anecdotal, choosing five geniuses four of whom are outside his data set.

Is genius linked to madness?
  • It appears that the greatest artists of the Renaissance were neither notably unconventional nor notably temperamental, but on the contrary studious, hard-working, courteous, sociable, and sophisticated.” (p 57)
  • However the poets from the Romantic period “were more than five times as likely to have committed suicide, at least 20 times more likely to have been committed to an asylum or madhouse, and 30 times more likely to have suffered from a manic depressive illness.” (p 59)
  • However again, most modern writers “were charming, fun, articulate, and disciplined. They typically followed very similar schedules, getting up in the morning and allocating a large chunk of time to writing during the earlier part of the day. They would rarely let a day go by without writing.” (p 61)
I have a counter-thesis. Genius and talent are not separate categories, as Robinson believes, but part of a spectrum. A lot of genius is down to luck. Darwin without the Beagle is unlikely to have made the discovery that has led to the Genius label even though his work on barnacles would have been just as thorough. There are millions of brilliant minds working away as doggedly as the sung geniuses but because their work does not capture the zeitgeist they are unsung. Genius is like a sandpile. Each one of us is a grain of sand and we land on the sandpile. Most of us cause trickles, a few of us cause landslides. Whether you cause a trickle or a landslide is partly down to the characteristics of yourself but mostly due to the characteristics of the slope you land on.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book. Robisnon manages to find new interesting facts about people who have been much written about:
  • During its first run in Vienna in 1786 ... The Marriage of Figaro received so many encores that the length of each performance was almost doubled. Within a week of the premiere, the Holy Roman Emperor ... was obliged to issue a general order for all operas permitting encores only of the arias.” (p 106)
  • Mozart’s “constitutional inability to rest on his laurels is why he evolved into a great composer during the last decade of his life.” (p 117)
  • when some grand conception was working in his brain he was purely abstracted, walked about the apartment and knew not what was passing around ... but when once arranged in his mind, he needed no Piano Forte but would take music paper and whilst he wrote ... conversation never interrupted him.” (p 121 quoting Constanza Mozart)
  • Darwin’s notebooks show “key advances in Darwin's thought ... along with retreats, detours, impasses, and blunders.” (p 154) 
  • In Polish schools in the 1870s “The Russian language was mandatory in education, to the extent that lessons in Polish as a language had to be carried out in Russian.” (p 161) 
  • Pierre Curie and his brother Jacques discovered piezoelectricity in 1880. (p 170) 
  • Einstein wrote that “creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a skyscraper in its place. It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wide views, discovering unexpected connections ... [ page break] but the point from which we started out still exists and can be seen.” (p 182 - 183)
  • Einstein's first child born to his first wife Mileva was a girl called Liserl. “To this day no one knows what happened to her” (p 190)
  • Virginia's cousin J K Stephen was mad and has “been proposed by one historian as being the murderer Jack the Ripper.” (p 205)
  • The novel Mrs Dalloway has “a narrative voice borrowed freely from speech rhythms shorn of conventional speech markers.” (p 210) 
  • Virginia criticised Edwardian novelists for laying too much “stress upon the fabric of things ... if you hold that novels are in the first place about people, and only in the second about the houses they live in, that is the wrong way to set about it.” (p 211)
  • The worst thing about the air raids at Richmond, Virginia [Woolf] wrote to her sister in early 1918, was having to make conversation with the servants all night in the shelter.” (p 213)

There are some other moments of fascination:

  • “‘proto-writing’ - that is, signs capable of expressing a limited range of meaning but not the full range of spoken language - seems to have existed during the last ice age, in the form of enigmatic cave drawings, petroglyphs, and notched bones, perhaps 20,000 years old. (Modern examples of ‘proto-writing’ include international transportation symbols at airports, mathematical symbols, and musical staff notation.) ‘Full writing’ - that is, a sign system able to express any and all thought - most likely started some five millennia ago in the expanding cities of Mesopotamia ... the breakthrough that transformed proto-writing into full writing what's the rebus” (p xxii)
  • The majority of breakthroughs do involve an identifiable, pivotal episode of revelation, whether one calls it a eureka experience or not. ... another term might be ‘ epiphany’.” (p xxiv)
  • There has never yet been an instance of a teenage breakthrough - not even by Newton or Mozart.” (p xxxv)
  • Francis Galton “ observed that a large audience at a lecture fidgets around once a minute on average, about half as often when gripped by the speaker’s words, and that the fidget of an engaged listener is briefer than the fidget of a bored listener.” (p 4)
  • Not only did the long-term committed perform better with a low level of practice than the short-term committed with a high level of practice ... the long-term committed performed 400 per cent better than the short-term committed when they, too, adopted a high level of practice.” (p 12)
  • The more a pianist practiced over time, the thicker was the myelin, the less leaky and more efficient the axons, and the better the communication system of the brain’s synapses and neurons.” (p 33)
  • No one puts their IQ in their curriculum vitae” (p 17)
  • An autistic child may step on another child on the floor, treating him or her as a lifeless object, because the autistic child has no ability to ... imagine that the second child may have a mind like its own.” (p 45)
  • If the genes that predispose people to madness can also cause positive attributes such as enhanced creativity, then there would be a force keeping them in the gene pool.” (p 53, quoting Nettle 2001)
  • How often does it happen that clothes, money, pomp, and especially the curled wig is that which turns a man into a scientist, counsellor, or doctor” (p 110, quoting Leopold Mozart)
  • The story of Idomeneus, king of Crete, who is forced to sacrifice his own son as a result of a vow to the gods, made while shipwrecked on his return from fighting in the Trojan wars, to sacrifice the first person he meets if he is saved.” (p 114)
  • To every ten real connoisseurs there are a hundred ignoramuses. So do not neglect the so-called popular style, which tickles long ears.” (p 114, quoting Leopold Mozart)
  • Nobility, wealth, rank, high position, such things make a man proud. But what did you ever do to earn them? Chose your parents carefully, that’s all.” (p 115, quoting Figaro in the Beaumarchais play)
  • hieroglyphic inscriptions continued to be written until AD 394.” (p 127)
  • The word Copt is derived from the Arabic qubti which itself derives from the Greek Aiguptos (Egypt). The Coptic script was invented around the end of the first century AD, and from the fourth to the tenth centuries Coptic flourished as a spoken language.” (p 129)
  • Even English has non-alphabetic characters such as £. (p 135).
  • Edward Gibbon wrote in his memoirs that ‘ conversation enriches the mind, but solitude is the school of genius’ ... Edison ... said: ‘the best thinking has been done in solitude’. ... Wagner noted that: ‘isolation and complete loneliness are my only consolation and my salvation.’ Byron stated: ‘society is harmful to any achievement of the mind’.” (p 262)
  • There is a developing genetic base for personality: “A study of New Zealand adults over time showed that those with the greatest tendency to depression - that is, high scorers on neuroticism - had two copies of short forms of the serotonin transporter genes, as opposed to either one copy of the short form and one of a long form or two copies of the long form, inherited from the subject parents.” (p 294)
  • ‘If there is inspiration, it’s not something that comes at the beginning of the piece. It comes in the course of writing it’, the composer Elliott Carter remarked.” (p 318)

Robinson also wrote a marvellous biography of Thomas Young The Last Man Who Knew Everything

June 2018; 329 pages